Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS 1.4ext + Canon 5D Mk3
I’ve just returned from a two week wildlife photography expedition in the Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia where I was photographing grizzly bears from a kayak. Since the memories are fresh in my mind I thought it would be the perfect time to craft a list of essential items for wildlife photographers. My previous list, 21 Essential Pieces Of Gear For The Travelling Photographer, was very popular and is also worth a look since most people do travel to their wildlife photography locations!
Quick Reference List
I know what some of you are like so I’ll kick things off with a simplified version of the list. For more information, and my reasoning behind each item, please scroll down.
- Binoculars /monocular
- Telephoto lens
- Bean bag – Gura Gear Sabi Sack
- Camera bag capable of holding long lenses
- Long lens rain cover
You’ll have to scroll to the bottom to find out the biggest myth!
1 – Binoculars or a monocular
Wildlife photography is often a waiting game and you might spend hours scanning the horizon for your intended target. It’s simply not practical or comfortable to do this with your camera and lens, a pair of binoculars or a monocular are an absolute essential accessory for a wildlife photographer. A monocular can be a great choice when you have to hike to your location because they are smaller, lighter and fit easily onto your belt. If you are shooting from your car, or a safari vehicle, then a pair of binoculars will likely be a better choice. In fact for many people there’s good reason to have access to both options in your gear closet but I’ll leave that decision up to you. The most typical magnifications are 8X and 10X. 10X devices are physically larger but in most cases I don’t find them to be prohibitive. There is probably some math that you could do to work out the 35mm equivalent of a 10X pair of binoculars but all you really need to know is that it’s a lot! A 10X set of binoculars is going to show you a far closer view than your super telephoto lens does and that’s the important thing. When you’re looking at specifications you’ll see they are always represented as two numbers. For example; 10X42 or 9X32. The first number is of course the magnification, while the second number is the size of the objective lens in millimetres. A larger lens lets more light in and offers a brighter view through the viewfinder, at the expense of added weight of course. Juggling these two numbers gives rise to a huge variety of different size options. Another thing that you’ll likely want to take notice of is the waterproofing. Since we can’t really guarantee what the weather will be like, I would always opt for a fully waterproof setup. In most cases this adds very little cost to the equation.
When you start looking at the options that are out there you’ll also see a huge variance in pricing, even when comparing binoculars with seemingly similar specifications. Price is somewhat determined by the quality of the optics, and also the size of the device. It’s possible to get very small 10X devices, but the smaller you make a 10X device, the more expensive it becomes to maintain a good optical quality in a miniature form-factor. It’s a definite balancing act so you need to decide what’s most important to you between price, magnification, physical size and optical quality.
- Nikon 10×42 Monarch 7 ATB Binocular
- Nikon 8×42 Monarch 5 Binoculars – Smaller option than the ones above
- Bushnell 10x42mm Legend Ultra HD Binoculars – Extremely popular and multi award winning
- Leica Ultravid 10x25mm Compact Binoculars – Incredibly compact and optically excellent but at Leica prices of course
- Bushnell 9×32 Monocular – Cheap, waterproof and pocket-sized. Less than $50 so this is a great gift idea!
- Vortex Solo 10×25 Waterproof Monocular – Also available in 8x magnification version or with a 36mm lens.
- Leica Monovid 8×20 Waterproof Monocular – Superior image sharpness and ultimate portability at a price.
2 – Headlamp or Torch
The majority of good wildlife photography opportunities will be early in the morning or late in the evening when the light is less harsh. This almost certainly means that you’ll spend some time in the darkness, whether it be before or after your photography session. I personally like to carry both a headlamp and a torch (flashlight for US folks) with me. The headlamp is perfect when you need two hands to rummage in a camera bag and they also do a great job of illuminating your immediate surroundings when you are walking in the dark. A small, powerful LED torch can be great as well though as this allows you to light up distant objects and it can also be a handy light painting tool! As featured in the travelling photography accessories, I use the Petzl Tikka R+. You can recharge it via USB and it also has a red LED mode which is great for illuminating closer objects, like your camera, but without affecting your night vision.
For LED torches I rely on a couple of slightly different sized Quark models from FourSevens. These kinds of accessories don’t have to break the bank, but they can make a huge difference to the success of your photo mission!
3 – Telephoto Lens
There’s really no escaping the fact that you’re going to need a relatively long lens to achieve the kind of wildlife photos you’ll likely be proud of. At a bare minimum I would suggest having something in the 400mm equivalent range. I say equivalent because the crop factor of APS-C sensor cameras like the Canon 7D MK2 will provide you a 35mm equivalent focal length that’s longer than the actual focal length of the lens. For example a 300mm lens on a 1.6x crop Canon camera is the equivalent of 480mm. The Canon 100-400 is a popular option for enthusiasts, as is the Nikon 80-400. In 2014 Tamron also released the excellent 150-600mm lens which comes in at an astonishingly cheap price for a lens that will take you all the way to 600mm. I’ve actually tested this lens myself whilst shooting grizzly bears and was extremely impressed by the lens’ sharpness. Sigma have also released two variations on a 150-600mm lens as well, taking direct aim at the unmitigated success of Tamron’s lens with wildlife photography enthusiasts. The cheaper of Sigma’s two models takes direct aim at the Tamron equivalent, while the higher end version is built to withstand the rigours of professional usage.
Shot with the incredibly good value Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3
Of course there are always the more expensive Canon and Nikon super telephoto lenses as well. Canon’s 200-400 f/4 L IS 1.4ext (a lens that I own myself) is widely regarded as the king of wildlife lenses at the current moment, but the price of this lens is enough to cause most people to spit out their coffee. The question that often arises then is should you bother to own a cheaper long lens option like the Sigma’s or the Tamron, or should you simply spend that money on renting the more expensive options when you need them? This is a great question! I’ll tell you right now that there is a discernible difference in image quality between these two brackets of lenses. But the BIGGEST difference is that the apertures on the larger primes and zooms from Canon and Nikon are larger and constant. Having access to f/4 on something like a Canon 600m f/4 L IS II, over f/6.3 on something like the Tamron, makes a huge difference when you are shooting in low light. You can go on shooting keepers much longer with the prime lens and you’ll also be shooting at a lower ISO. On paper it looks like a small difference, but having just come off the back of a trip where I shot the Tamron 150-600 alongside the Canon 200-400, I can tell you that in the field, in practice, it makes a MASSIVE difference. So what does this mean? Well for me it means that my advice for people taking that once in a lifetime safari trip is to rent one of the big guns and not bother with these cheaper variable aperture zoom lenses. If on the other hand you are shooting wildlife more regularly, and not just on one-off safaris, then definitely consider the Tamron and Sigma options as well as the native Nikon or Canon ones.
4 – Bean Bag – Gura Gear Sabi Sack
Bean bags are an excellent way to support your camera and lens combination where a tripod just isn’t practical. They are often used in safari vehicles, but of course they work just as well in your own vehicle! Gura Gear’s Sabi Sacks are the perfect answer and they come in a couple of different sizes. Their split design means they rest easily over a car door, or provide a perfect lens cradle when being used on the ground for low angle shooting. The idea is that you empty the sacks for travel, then fill them up with whatever you can find when you get to your destination. Buckwheat hulls work well, or you can simply use rice! I keep one of these in the back of my car at all times, you never know when you’ll come across something interesting to shoot. As with many of the items on this list, they are inexpensive and don’t take up a lot of room, yet have the ability to really enhance your wildlife photography experiences.
5 – Tripod
Hand holding longer lenses can work for birds in flight but that’s about it. Many of the best wildlife photography opportunities happen early in the morning or late in the evening when light levels force you to use a very slow shutter speed. Combine this with the magnified shaking effect of longer focal lengths and a tripod is really an essential item. I regularly find myself shooting well under 1/200 second even with focal lengths in the 400-600mm range. Even a 4-stop image stabilizer isn’t going to help you get consistent results in that area without a tripod. The other reason for getting a tripod is simply to prevent fatigue. On a day of shooting, many hours can be spent watching and waiting. Save your energy and use a tripod to have your gear ready and waiting right in front of you.
Choosing a tripod could be the subject of a very very long post on its own but I’ll offer a few tips here and tell you about some of my favourite options. The two biggest mistakes I think people make when choosing a tripod are to buy one that’s too cheap and buy one that’s too short. I’ve made both these mistakes myself! Doh! Pay close attention to the height of the tripod when it’s fully extended. The trap most people fall into is getting one that appear to correctly put their camera at eye level. The problem with this is that it assumes flat ground! When have you ever found flat ground outside? In reality you’ll want to have the ability to have have one downhill leg extend longer and still have the camera at eye level. I’m not a tall guy (5’10”) but I still find that the Really Right Stuff TVC-24L is a great tripod for me and I regularly rejoice at the height I can extend it to. I previously had a TVC-33S but the constant hunching over to my camera quickly drove me nuts so I had to sell it for something taller.
The other mistake I’ve made is buying a cheap tripod and then constantly having to deal with problems and breakages. In the beginning it’s all too easy to think the tripod is a place you can save money. It’s perfectly possible to get good photos using a cheap tripod, right up to the point at which it breaks, then you’re screwed! Please, please do not buy the cheapest tripod that will “do the job”. You’ll regret it. Trust me! In the end you’ll only have to replace it and then you might as well have just started with a good one in the first place. A well maintained, quality tripod will last ten years or more. Yes my tripod is a pricey choice, and I’m not saying you have to pay RRS prices, but I take great satisfaction in the sturdiness of it and knowing that it’s going to be with me for many adventures to comes.
If funds can’t stretch to RRS pricing then I’d take a look at Induro’s carbon tripods and the ever present Manfrotto 055. I have a carbon Induro monopod that I’ve been using for 6 years now and I love that thing. Is carbon worth the extra cost? I believe it is. You get superior vibration dampening, considerable weight savings and vastly improved strength. On a long day where you’re already carrying a heavy lens and camera setup, you’ll be thankful for the weight saving. Gitzo tripods, particularly the 2-series and 3-series legs, are also worth a good look. They are about 80% of the price of RRS tripods, though their capacity/weight ratio isn’t quite as good.
6 – Gimbal
A gimbal is a device that sits on top of your tripod and perfectly balances your camera and lens combination, allowing you to pan and tilt it in any direction with almost zero effort. For wildlife photography with any lens of 400mm or more, I would consider this an essential item. Ballheads are designed to be positioned and then locked for the photo but with wildlife you are often following your subject and a gimbal makes this a breeze.
In the past, Wimberley made the only gimbals worth considering, but today there’s actually a few excellent options out there. My personal choice is the Really Right Stuff PG-02, used without the optional cradle. The PG-02 comes apart into two pieces which makes it easy to travel with, and it’s also an integral part of the RRS multi-row panorama system which means less gear to travel with if I want to work on some panos during a wildlife expedition. It is the most expensive option at $700, but since it’s both a gimbal AND a pano rig, it can actually give you a saving if you need both those items. Of course RRS’s build quality is legendary as well and it fits into my kit well with their TVC-24L tripod and quick-release levelling base.
The Wimberley WH-200 is another great option and it’s definitely the one I’ve seen on fellow photographer’s tripods the most. It’s a little cheaper than the RRS option, but it’s buttery smooth and equally well built. It also features a bottom mount cradle which is an additional $100 option on the RRS PG-02. I personally don’t mind a side-mount and I happily use it with my heavy beast of a Canon 200-400 f/4, but I know it perplexes some folks when used with heavier lenses. For smaller lenses like a 300mm, or something like the Tamron 150-200 we talked about earlier, the Wimberley Sidekick would also be an excellent option and this can work with your existing ballhead so long as you have an independent panning lock knob on the head.
A little newer on the scene are the gimbal options from Canadian company, Jobu. I’ve noticed these gimbals getting a lot of love these days on the forums, though I’ve yet to get my hands on them to evaluate them in person. I’d say they certainly seem to be an option for consideration though and they have about 4 different models to suit a variety of price points and camera gear.
7 – Camera Bag For Long Lenses
My Gura Gear Bataflae
You’ll want a pretty rugged camera bag to carry your gear in and it’ll need to be able to accommodate fairly long lenses. The current king of long lens bags is Gura Gear with their Bataflae pack, but this has a caveat. Whilst the pack’s butterfly opening system is second to none when it comes to working with long lenses, it’s not an overly comfortable pack to wear for any great length of time. If you tend to do most of your wildlife photography within a few hundred yards of your car, or a safari jeep, then this won’t present a problem. If on the other hand you like to get out and about and hike to find your subjects then you would do well to consider some other options. I’ve lost track of how many outdoor photo packs I have tested over the years but the universally good companies to look at are definitely MindShift Gear, Gura Gear and F-Stop Gear. You can’t go wrong with most of their products so it’s a case of looking at the specifications and figuring out what size you need for your particular lens. The F-Stop Tilopa BC is an excellent pack and the MindShift Rotation 180 Professional is stellar and my go-to everyday photo pack. Remember that it’s not just the physical capacity to carry your long lens that you’re looking for. You also want a pack that built tough, which is why I specifically mention these companies as they build bags that are dedicated to outdoor photography pursuits.
If you are needing a case just for your long lens then check out the Think Tank Glass Limo.
MindShift R180 Pro
8 – Long Lens Rain Cover
When you consider the cost of your lens, a waterproof cover for it should be a no-brainer. Since it’s impossible to make any guarantees on the weather, it’s an inevitability that at some point, you’ll be caught in the rain while trying to find, or waiting for your chosen subject. There actually aren’t a whole lot of options out there for quality long lens covers. The Think Tank Hydrophobia 300-600 V2 is probably the best known one. Think Tank’s products are universally well made and I’ve owned a Hydrophobia for many years. The cover surrounds the lens and camera body entirely, and your LCD screen and controls can be viewed through the clear back panel. It comes with a front lens cover which can be neatly stored in a small pocket on the side, and it’s long enough to work with lenses from 300mm all the way to 800mm. My main grievance with this cover is the need for a dedicated eye-piece for your specific camera. This is needed to form a tight seal on the back panel of the cover, so when you purchase the cover, you have to purchase an eye-piece as well. The cover is also pretty bulky, so it’s not the kind of thing you can always store in your bag and that has caused me to be without it in some circumstances where I wish I’d had it. Note that the opening for the cover is on the bottom. For those using side-mount gimbals like the Sidekick from Wimberley, or the Really Right Stuff gimbal, you’ll have to use the arm hole on the left to pass the lens foot through. This works fine although it does very slightly impede comfortable operation, but not to the point where it would actually cause a real issue.
MANY colour and cammo variations available for the RainCoat from LensCoat
The next option that you have is the LensCoat RainCoat 2.0. I recently purchased on of these for testing purposes. This LensCoat option has an open back design with a drawcord on it so there is no need for a dedicated eye-piece, and the camera is much easier to work with. You can also clearly view the LCD which isn’t always possible with the Think Tank cover. The LensCoat RainCoat isn’t perfect either though. The front cover is an additional purchase, and those covers are WAY bigger than they need to be. The material choice is also very strange for a rain cover. Where the Think Tank cover feels like it’s made from the kind of material that a piece of waterproof clothing might be made from, the LensCoat cover is lined with waterproof material, but the exterior is decidedly furry. It’s an odd choice for something designed to get wet because the water doesn’t bead off it and it will become saturated. It also adds unnecessary bulk to the whole design. Despite not having the back section of the cover at all, the LensCoat cover is really no less bulky than the Think Tank one. Just as with the Think Tank cover, you must use the left arm hole to mount a side-mount gimbal.
I don’t believe that the prefect long lens cover has been made yet. Neither of these options are bad options and have both worked great for me, they just have a little room for improvement.
9 – Teleconverter
Teleconverters, sometimes called extenders, are a great way to extend the reach of your long lens. There’s a lot of dud information out there on the internet when it comes to extenders, and a lot of that is based on old technology. The fact is that Canon and Nikon’s most recent extenders are all very good when used with compatible lenses. Whether or not your lens is compatible with an extender is something you’ll have to research as there are too many variables for me to comment on that here. What I really want to do though is to reassure people that it is perfectly possible to get stellar images when using an extender, and I always have a Canon 1.4x III with me. Many of my favourite images from my career have been shot with extenders, and that even included 2x extenders! What you really have to do is understand their limitations though. They do reduce contrast by a small amount, so don’t use them in extremely flat light because contrast adds to perceived sharpness. They do soften images slightly, so make sure you stop them down a little bit compensate for that. I often do this even at the expense of having to go to a higher ISO. Canon’s MKIII extenders are so good though that I no longer worry about that when using the 1.4x though. I’m happy shooting that wide open if it’s paired with any of their MKII super telephoto lenses. Nikon shooters even have the benefit of a 1.7x extender in their lineup so you don’t have to jump right from 1.4x to 2x. By all initial accounts, the latest 1.4x that was launched this year alongside the new Nikkor 400mm f2.8 is also a good step forwards. The one caveat to all of this is that Canon and Nikon tend to develop the extenders alongside other lenses and so they do perform perceivably better with newer lenses. The Canon 1.4x III on the Canon 70-200 f2/8 L IS II for example, is a brilliant pairing. The same extender paired with with the previous version of that lens isn’t nearly so hot. The extenders can’t work miracles on the quality of older glass, so bear that in mind. It’s also worth noting that using extenders tends to slow down AF systems a little bit. Make sure you compensate for this by using a smaller cluster of AF points which will typically take less processing power for your camera to lock on with.
I would never buy a lens with the sole intention of using it continuously with an extender on it, that would be pointless, but they can be an incredibly handy tool to have in your back pocket for occasional extra reach.
This image was shot using two stacked 1.4x extenders! No complaints here!
MYTH – You Need A Super Fast Camera
While we are thinking specifically about gear for wildlife photography it might be a good chance for me to jump on my soapbox. I’ve seen a lot of websites out there stating that you need to have a super fast camera for wildlife photography. This is, quite simply, bull. The majority of my wildlife images up to this point have been taken with a Canon 5D MK3 which anyone will tell you is not a very fast camera. Now I’m not saying that a faster camera, say a 7D MK2 or a 1D-X, won’t help some people, I’m simply saying that it’s not a necessity. Very rarely do I have the thought that I missed a shot because I was using a camera that was too slow. More often than not, it’s a case of carefully watching the animal and anticipating their movement and gestures to capture a defining look. I don’t “spray and pray”. I carefully consider the shot and then formulate the perfect image in my mind’s eye. Maybe it’s when the animal looks my way, or as in the case of the bear image at the top of this post, when he looked away which cast light onto both of his eyes. Then I wait for that look and……. click. I actually take a lot of satisfaction from shooting only a few images from a particular encounter and it gives me a chance to observe the animals and learn from them. Now there are some instances where a faster FPS can be a benefit, particularly with birds in flight where you are trying to capture a specific wing positioning, but again I would never say that it’s a complete necessity. Food for thought.
- 21 Essential Pieces Of Gear For The Travelling Photographer
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